Mediasprawl: Springfield U.S.A.
The Simpsons are the closest thing in America to
a national media literacy program. By pretending to be a kids’ cartoon,
the show gets away with murder: that is, the virtual murder of our
most coercive media iconography
and techniques. For what began as entertaining interstitial material
for an alternative network variety show has revealed itself, in the twenty-first
century, as nothing short of a media revolution.
Maybe that’s the very reason The Simpsons works so well. The Simpsons were
born to provide The Tracey Ullman Show with a way of cutting to commercial breaks.
Their very function as a form of media was to bridge the discontinuity inherent
to broadcast television. They existed to pave over the breaks. But rather than
dampening the effects of these gaps in the broadcast stream, they heightened
them. They acknowledged the jagged edges and recombinant forms behind the glossy
patina of American television and, by doing so, initiated its deconstruction.
They exist in the outlying suburbs of the American media landscape: the hinterlands
of the Fox network. And living as they do—simultaneously a part of yet
separate from the mainstream, primetime fare—they are able to bear witness
to our cultural formulations and then comment upon them.
Consider, for a moment, the way we thought of media before this cartoon family
quite literally satirized us into consciousness. Media used to be a top-down
affair. A few rich guys in suits sat in offices at the tops of tall buildings
and decided which stories would be in the headlines or on the evening news and
how they would be told. As a result, we came to think of information as something
that got fed to us from above. We counted on the editors of the New York Times
to deliver “all the news that’s fit to print” and Walter Cronkite
to tell us “that’s the way it was.” We had no reason not to
trust the editorial decisions of the media managers upon whom we depended to
present, accurately, what was going on in the world around us. In fact, most
of us didn’t even realize such decisions were being made at all. The TV
became America’s unquestioned window to the world, as The Simpsons’ opening
sequence—which shows each family member rushing home to gather at the TV
But we call the stuff on television programming for a reason. No, television
programmers are not programming television sets or evening schedules; they’re
programming the viewers. Whether they are convincing us to buy a product, vote
for a candidate, adopt an ideology, or simply confirm a moral platitude, the
underlying reason for making television is to hold onto our attention and then
sell us a bill of goods. Since the time of the Bible and Aristotle through today’s
over-determined three-act action movies, the best tool at the programmer’s
disposal has been the story. But thanks to interactive technologies like the
remote control, and cynical attitudes like Bart Simpson’s, the story just
doesn’t hold together anymore.
For the most part, television stories program their audiences by bringing them
into a state of tension. The author creates a character we like and gets us to
identify with the hero’s plight. Then the character is put into jeopardy
of one sort or another. As the character moves up the incline plane towards crisis,
we follow him vicariously, while taking on his anxiety as our own. Helplessly
we follow him into danger, disease, or divorce, and just when we can’t
take any more tension without bursting, our hero finds a way out. He finds a
moral, a product, an agenda, or a strategy—the one preferred by the screenwriter
or his sponsor, of course—that rescues him from danger and his audience
from the awful vicarious anxiety. Then everyone lives happily ever after. This
is what it means to “enter-tain”—literally “to hold within”—and
it only works on a captive audience.
In the old days of television, when a character would get into danger, the viewer
had little choice but to submit. To change the channel would have required getting
up out of the La-Z-Boy chair, walking up to the television set, and turning the
dial. 50 calories of human effort. That’s too much effort for a man of
Homer’s generation, anyway.
The remote control changed all that. With an expenditure of, perhaps, .0001 calories,
the anxious viewer is liberated from tortuous imprisonment and free to watch
another program. Although most well-behaved adult viewers will soldier on through
a story, kids raised with remotes in their hands have much less reverence for
well-crafted story arcs and zap away without a moment’s hesitation. Instead
of watching one program, they skim through ten at a time. They don’t watch
TV, they watch the television, guiding their own paths through the entirety of
media rather than following the prescribed course of any one programmer. No matter
how much we complain about our kids’ short attention spans or even their
Attention Deficit Disorders, their ability to disconnect from programming has
released them from the hypnotic spell of even the best TV mesmerizers.
The Nintendo joystick further empowers them while compounding the programmer’s
dilemma. In the old days, the TV image was unchangeable. Gospel truth piped into
the home from the top of some glass building. Today, kids have the experience
of manipulating the image on the screen. This has fundamentally altered their
perception of and reverence for the television image. Just as the remote control
allows viewers to deconstruct the television image, the joystick has demystified
the pixel itself. The newsreader is just another middle-aged man manipulating
his joystick. Hierarchy and authority are diminished, and the programmers’ weapons
neutralized. Sure, they might sit back and watch a program now and again, but
they do so voluntarily and with full knowledge of their complicity. It is not
an involuntary surrender.
A person who is doing rather than receiving is much less easily provoked into
a state of tension. The people I call “screenagers,” those raised
with interactive devices in their media arsenals, are natives in a mediaspace
where even the best television producers are immigrants. Like Bart, they speak
the language better and see through those clumsy attempts to program them into
submission. They never forget for a moment that they are watching media and resent
those who try to draw them in and sell them something. They will not be part
of a “target market.” At least not without a fight.
So, then, what kind of television does appeal to such an audience? Programs that
celebrate the screenager’s irreverence for the image, while providing a
new sort of narrative arc for the sponsor-wary audience. It’s the ethos
and behavior embodied by screenager role-model and anti-hero Bart Simpson. His
name intended as an anagram for “brat,” Bart embodies youth culture’s
ironic distance from media and its willingness to dissemble and re-splice even
the most sacred meme constructs. With the plastic safety of his incarnation as
an animated character, Bart can do much more than just watch and comment on media
iconography. Once a media figure has entered his animated world, Bart can interact
with it, satirize it, or even become it. Although The Simpsons began on adult
television, these animated tidbits became more popular than the live-action portion
of The Tracey Ullman Show and Fox decided to give the Simpson family their own
series. It is not coincidental that what began as a bridging device between a
show and its commercials—a media paste—developed into a self-similar
The Simpsons’ creator, comic-strip artist Matt Groening (rhymes with “raining”),
has long understood the way to mask his countercultural agenda. “I find
you can get away with all sorts of unusual ideas if you present them with a smile
on your face,” he said in an early 1990s interview. In fact, the show’s
mischievous ten-year-old protagonist is really just the screen presence of Groening’s
true inner nature. For his self-portrait in a Spin magazine article, Groening
simply drew a picture of Bart and then scribbled the likeness of his own glasses
and beard over it. Bart functions as Matt Groening’s “smile,” and
the child permits him—and the show’s young, Harvard-educated writing
staff—to get away with a hell of a lot.
The Simpsons takes place in a town called Springfield, named after the fictional
location of Father Knows Best, making it clear that the Simpson family is meant
as a ‘90s answer to the media reality presented to us in the ‘50s
and ‘60s. Suburban sitcoms of those decades, like Father Knows Best, The
Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave it to Beaver, and even The Brady Bunch, all tended
to promote life in the suburbs as somehow more wholesome than the city for a
postwar American family. In the ‘burbs, there was time and room to work
out the family’s problems, all in the safety of an ample living room and
at the arm of daddy’s big chair. The ability of these families to solve
their problems in half-an-hour at the most was really an advertisement for the
suburbs. These shows made it okay for daddy to go all the way to the city to
work and only show up at home by nightfall. Evenings and weekends were all the
fathering these children required. Besides, equipped with 1950s space age technologies
in the home, such as washing machines and canister vacuums, mommies were empowered
to wrestle with more important matters once left for dad: meetings with teachers,
driving the kids to baseball practice, and, of course, keeping up on local gossip.
It shouldn’t be surprising that along with Levittown and its built-in televisions
rose the sitcom, pandering to its new constituency while advertising the appliances
of GE and Westinghouse as well as the lifestyle and happiness they promised.
In fact, the utopian fantasy of these programs did depend on the selling of more
washing machines and television sets. Our postwar economy was busy absorbing
hundreds of thousands of veterans while relegating women back to the kitchen.
A consumer culture needed to be developed by any means necessary.
But if Father Knows Best was a hopeful projection into the future, The Simpsons
is what actually came to pass. The Simpsons is the American media family turned
on its head, told from the point of view of not the smartest member of the family,
but the most ironic. Audiences delight in watching Bart effortlessly outwit his
parents, teachers, and local institutions. This show is so irreverent that it
provoked an attack from George Bush, who pleaded for the American family to be
more like the Waltons than the Simpsons. The show’s writers quickly responded,
letting Bart say during one episode, “Hey, man, we’re just like the
Waltons. Both families are praying for an end to the depression.”
The show shares many of the viral features of other ‘90s programs. Murphy
Brown’s office dartboard, for example, was used as a meme slot; in each
episode it has a different satirical note pinned to it. The Simpsons’ writers
also create little slots for the most attentive viewers to glean extra memes.
The opening credits always begin with Bart writing a different message on his
classroom bulletin board and contain a different saxophone solo from his sister,
Lisa. Every episode has at least one film reenactment, usually from Hitchcock
or Kubrick, to satirize an aspect of the modern cultural experience. In a spoof
of modern American child care, writers re-created a scene from The Birds, except
here Homer Simpson rescues his baby daughter from a daycare center by passing
through a playground of menacingly perched babies.
These media references form the basis for the show’s role as a media literacy
primer. The joy of traditional television storytelling is simply getting to the
ending. The reward is making it through to the character’s escape from
danger. While most episodes of The Simpsons incorporate a dramatic nod to such
storytelling conventions, the screenagers watching the program couldn’t
care less about whether Principal Skinner gets married or Homer finds his donut.
These story arcs are there for the adult viewers only. No, the pleasure of watching
The Simpsons for its media-literate (read: younger) viewers is the joy of pattern
recognition. The show provides a succession of “a-ha” moments—those
moments when we recognize which other forms of media are being parodied. We are
rewarded with self-congratulatory laughter whenever we make a connection between
the scene we are watching and the movie, commercial, or television program on
which it is based.
The Simpsons serves as an alternative strategy for dealing with both virtual
suburbs of the television dial and the very real suburbs of Springfield, U.S.A.
The pervasive choice in confronting the monotony of planned residential communities
is to invent theme environments and then superimpose them over the otherwise
bland. A steak house becomes an Outback Australian theme environment and a strip
mall becomes the Wild West. Like the narrative and happy ending superimposed
on the otherwise random and utterly meaningless day of a suburban family in a
1950s sitcom, these manufactured realities combat the underlying dearth of cultural
evolution or any foundation whatsoever. In this sense, The Simpsons deconstructs
and informs the media soup of which it is a part. Rather than drawing us into
the hypnotic spell of the traditional storyteller, the program invites us to
make active and conscious comparisons of its own scenes with those of other,
less transparent media forms. By doing so, the show’s writers help us in
our efforts to develop immunity to their coercive effects. By deconstructing
the narrative veneer of the media with which it cohabitates, The Simpsons re-urbanizes
the media suburbs. It adds a first layer of reflection: a bracket of self-consciousness
through which a genuine relationship between us and its characters can begin.
And what we have in common is that we all live in the artificially quaintified
themepark of the American suburbs.
The show’s supervisors through The Simpsons’ golden years of the
mid-1990s, Mike Reiss and Al Jean, were both Harvard Lampoon veterans. When I
met with them on the Fox lot, they told me how they delighted in animation’s
ability to serve as a platform for sophisticated social and media satire. “About
two thirds of the writers have been Harvard graduates,” explained Jean, “so
it’s one of the most literate shows on TV.” “We take subjects
on the show,” added Reiss, who was Jean’s classmate, “that
we can parody. Homer goes to college or onto a game show. We’ll take Super
Bowl Sunday and then parody the Bud Bowl and how merchants capitalize on the
event.” Having been raised on media themselves, the Diet Coke-drinking,
baseball-jacketed pair gravitate toward parodying the media aspects of the subjects
they pick. They did not comment on social issues as much as they did the media
imagery around a particular social issue. “These days television in general
seems to be feeding on itself, parodying itself,” Jean told me. “Some
of the most creative stuff we write comes from just having the Simpsons watch
TV.” Which they often did.
Many episodes are still about what happens on the Simpsons’ own TV set,
allowing the characters to feed off television, which itself is feeding off other
television. In this self-reflexive circus, it is only Bart who refuses to be
fooled by anything. His father, Homer, represents an earlier generation and can
easily be manipulated by TV commercials and publicity stunts like clear beer. “Homer
certainly falls for every trick,” admitted Reiss, “even believing
the Publishers Clearing House mailing that he is a winner.” When Homer
acquired an illegal cable TV hookup, he became so addicted to the tube that he
almost died. Lisa, the brilliant member of the family, maintains a faith in the
social institutions of her world, works hard to get good grades in school, and
even entered and won a Reader’s Digest essay contest about patriotism. “But
Lisa feels completely alienated by the media around her,” Jean warned me.
The writers empathize with her more than any other
character. She has a more intellectual reaction to how disquieting
her life has become.
When Homer believes he may die from a heart attack, he tells the children, “I
have some terrible news.” Lisa answers, “Oh, we can take
anything. We’re the MTV generation. We feel neither highs nor lows.” Homer
asks what it’s like, and she just goes, “Eh.” It was
right out there.
Bart’s reaction to his cultural alienation, on the other hand,
is much more of a lesson in GenX strategy. Bart is a ten-year-old media
strategist—or at least an unconscious media manipulator—and
his exploits reveal the complexity of the current pop media from the
inside out. In one episode, the show that earned Reiss and Jean their
first Emmy nomination, Homer sees a commercial for a product he feels
will make a great birthday gift for Bart: a microphone that can be used
to broadcast to a special radio from many feet away (a parody of a toy
called Mr. Microphone). At first Bart is bored with the gift and plays
with a labeler he also received instead. Bart has fun renaming things
and leaving messages like “property of Bart Simpson” on every
object in his home; one such label on a beer in the fridge convinces
Homer that the can is off limits. Bart’s joy, clearly, is media
and subversive disinformation.
Homer plays with the radio instead, trying to get Bart’s interest, but
the boy knows the toy does not really send messages into the mediaspace; it
only broadcasts to one little radio. Bart finally takes interest in the toy
when he realizes its subversive value. After playing several smaller-scale
pranks, he accidentally drops the radio down a well and gets the idea for his
master plan. Co-opting a media event out of real history, when a little girl
struggled for life at the bottom of a well as rescuers worked to save her and
the world listened via radio, Bart uses his toy radio to fool the world and
launch his own media virus. He creates a little boy named Timmy O’Toole,
who cries for help from the bottom of the well. When police and rescuers prove
too fat to get into the well to rescue the boy, a tremendous media event develops.
News teams set up camp around the well, much in the fashion they gather around
any real-world media event, like the O. J. trial or the Waco stand-off. They
conduct interviews with the unseen Timmy—an opportunity Bart exploits
to make political progress against his mean school principal. In Timmy’s
voice, he tells reporters the story of how he came to fall into the well: he
is an orphan, new to the neighborhood, and was rejected for admission to the
local school by the principal because his clothes were too shabby. The next
day, front-page stories calling for the principal’s dismissal appear.
Eventually the virus grows to the point where real-world pop musician Sting
and Krusty the Clown, a TV personality from within the world of The Simpsons,
record an aid song and video to raise money for the Timmy O’Toole cause
called “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well.” The song hits
number one on the charts.
So Bart, by unconsciously exploiting a do-it-yourself media toy to launch viruses,
feeds back to mainstream culture. He does this both as a character in Springfield,
U.S.A., and as a media icon in our datasphere, satirizing the real Sting’s
charity recordings. The character Bart gets revenge against his principal and
enjoys a terrific prank. The icon Bart conducts a lesson in advanced media
activism. But, most importantly, it is through Bart that the writers of The
Simpsons are enabled to voice their own, more self-conscious comments on the
Finally, in the story, Bart remembers that he has put a label on his radio
toy, earmarking it “property of Bart Simpson.” He decides he better
get it out of the well before the radio, and his own identity, is discovered.
In his attempt to get the damning evidence out from the bottom of the well,
however, Bart really does fall in. He calls for help, admitting what he has
done. But once there is a real child in the well—and one who had attempted
to play a prank on the media—everyone loses interest in the tragedy.
The virus is blown. The Sting song plummets on the charts, and the TV news
crews pack up and leave. It is left to Bart’s mom and dad to dig him
out by hand. In our current self-fed media, according to the writers of The
Simpsons, a real event can have much less impact than a constructed virus,
especially when its intention is revealed.
No matter how activist the show appears, its creators insist that they have
no particular agenda. Reiss insisted he promoted no point of view on any issue.
In fact, he claimed to have picked the show’s subjects and targets almost
The show eats up so much material that we’re constantly just stoking
it like a furnace when we parody a lot of movies and TV. And now so many
of our writers are themselves the children of TV writers. There’s
already a second generation rolling in of people who not only watched
TV but watched tons of it. And this is our mass culture. Where everyone
used to know the catechism, now they all know episodes of The Twilight
Zone, our common frame of reference.
Reiss was being deceptively casual. Even if he and
the other writers claim to have no particular agenda (which is debatable),
admit to serving the media machine as a whole. As writers, they see themselves
as “feeding” the show and using other media references as
the fodder. It is as if the show is a living thing, consuming media culture,
recombining it, and spitting it out as second-generation media. With
Even Bart is in on the gag. In one episode, when Homer is in the hospital,
the family stands around his sick bed recalling incidents from the past, leading
to a satire of the flashback format used by shows to create a new episode out
of “greatest hit” scenes from old ones. As the family reminisces
together about past events, Bart raises a seeming non sequitur. His mother,
Marge, asks him, “Why did you bring that up?” “It was an
amusing episode,” replies Bart, half looking at the camera, before he
quickly adds “. . . of our . . . lives.” Bart knows he’s
on a TV show and knows the kinds of tricks his own writers use to fill up airtime.
Such self-consciousness is what allows The Simpsons to serve as a lesson in
modern media discontinuity. Bart skateboards through each episode, demonstrating
the necessary ironic detachment needed to move through increasingly disorienting
edits. “It’s animation,” explained Jean, who has since returned
to writing for the program. “It’s very segmented, so we just lift
things in and out. If you watch an old episode of I Love Lucy, you’ll
find it laborious because they take so long to set something up. The thesis
of The Simpsons is nihilism. There’s nothing to believe in anymore once
you assume that organized structures and institutions are out to get you.” “Right,” chimed
in Reiss, finally admitting to an agenda. “The overarching point is that
the media’s stupid and manipulative, TV is a narcotic, and all big institutions
are corrupt and evil.” These writers make their points both in the plots
of the particular episodes and in the cut-and-paste style of the show. By deconstructing
and reframing the images in our media, they allow us to see them more objectively,
or at least with more ironic distance. They encourage us to question the ways
institutional forces are presented to us through the media and urge us to see
the fickle nature of our own responses. Figures from the television world are
represented as cartoon characters not just to accentuate certain features,
but to allow for total recontextualization of their identities. These are not
simple caricatures, but pop cultural samples, juxtaposed in order to illuminate
the way they affect us.
As writers and producers, Reiss and Jean served almost as “channels” for
the media, as received through their own attitudinal filters. While they experience
their function as simply to “stoke the furnace,” the media images
they choose to dissemble are the ones they feel need to be exposed and criticized.
Reiss admitted to me,
I feel that in this way The Simpsons is the ultimate
of what you call a media virus. It sounds a little insidious because
I have kids of my
own, and the reason we’re a hit is because so many kids watch us
and make us a huge enterprise. But we’re feeding them a lot of
ideas and notions that they didn’t sign on for. That’s not
what they’re watching for. We all come from this background of
comedy that has never been big and popular—it’s this Letterman
school or Saturday Night Live, Harvard Lampoon, National Lampoon. We
used to be there, too.
The Simpsons provided its writers with a durable
viral shell for their most irreverent memes: “It’s as though we finally found a
vehicle for this sensibility, where we can do the kind of humor and the
attitudes, yet in a package that more people are willing to embrace.
I think if it were a live-action show, it wouldn’t be a hit,” Reiss
concluded quite accurately. In the mainstream media, only kids’ TV
appears sufficiently innocuous to permit such high levels of irreverence.
Like a Trojan horse, The Simpsons sneaks into our homes looking like
one thing, before releasing something else, far different, into our lives.
The audience interested in the program’s subversive doctrine may
not be large enough to keep the show in prime time, but the millions
of kids who tune in every week to watch Bart’s antics are.
Just as the show raises our awareness of media’s false promise of a happy
ending and our culture’s many false commercial idols, it also brings
suburban American consciousness to the next level. Land zoning regulations,
almost intentionally planned to flatten the perspective and reduce the potential
for ironic, urban cynicism to emerge, have now become the canvas for social
satire. Abu’s Quik-E-Mart, Krusty Burger, the nuclear power plant, and
Springfield Elementary all irrevocably change our relationship to the equivalent
locales on our own suburban landscapes. They have been recontextualized experientially.
They are points of reference for social satire. They are no longer functional
façades, but have been transformed into breaks in the veneer: portals
through which to deconstruct the rest of suburban experience. The tube that
was once used to sell us the suburban utopia is now the lens through which
we can demystify its symbols and smash its myths.
If The Simpsons fades in popularity in the coming decade it will merely be
a testament to the show having accomplished its purpose. Once we fully recognize
the way that our media attempts to make us care about things we ought best
not care about, from the labels on our sneakers to the ones on our fertilizer,
Bart’s lesson in media literacy and cultural activism will be complete.
Douglas Rushkoff, NYU professor and NPR commentator,
is the author of 9 books translated into over 25 languages, including
The Truth About Judaism (Crown, 2003), Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in
Popular Culture (Ballantine, 1994), and Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say
(Riverhead, 1999), winner of the Marshall McLuhan Award. He writes for
The New York Times and Time magazine, lectures around the world, and
makes documentaries, such as “The Merchants of Cool” for
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 3 (Fall 2003)
Copyright © 2003 by the University of Iowa